A quick history of the English breakfast

Every country has its myths, and I suspect one of England’s is, as the English Breakfast Society puts it, that the English breakfast is “a centuries old . . . tradition, one that can trace its roots back to the early 1300’s.” 

Yes, there is an English Breakfast Society. That should tell us something about how central the myth is. Or, if you like, how central the reality is. Or how odd the country is. 

Or possibly how odd any country is.

Never mind. It tells us something or other. Can we move on?

I found the quote on the society’s website, right below the picture of a wealthy couple from the long-dress-and-maid-serving-breakfast era. They’re sitting at a table looking unhappy. The man’s taken refuge behind his paper and all we know about his face is that he has eyebrows–two, I believe–but that’s enough to let us know he has no time for the woman right now because he’s attending to serious business, which by definition excludes women. The woman’s turned away from him, looking bored. Not to mention sulky. She’s not reading a newspaper because, c’mon people, ladies didn’t back then. 

The maid’s leaving the room and if I had to be one of these three people I’d be her because at least she gets to walk out, even if she can’t stay gone for long. 

But never mind the picture. It’s a red herring. I only mention it because it’s such bad publicity for the English breakfast that I couldn’t resist. If you want to promote the beauty of a meal, bury this picture someplace deep.

Irrelevant photo: a slightly battered rose, blooming in February.

Several other websites make more or less the same claim about how far back into history the English breakfast reaches. But let’s stay with the English Breakfast Society. Not only do they say the English breakfast dates back to the 1300s, but in a different paragraph they say it reaches back to the 13th century, which through a quirk of mathematics or accounting or something numbers-related isn’t the same thing at all. And, they say, it was developed by the gentry, “who considered themselves to be the guardians of the traditional English country lifestyle and who saw themselves as the cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxons.”

I suspect we’re looking at a bit of time slippage there. The Anglo-Saxons hadn’t come into fashion in the 1300s/13th century. If you wanted to get ahead in whichever of those two centuries we’re talking about, you needed to and downplay whatever Anglo-Saxon traditions your family had kept alive and speak Norman French. Chaucer, who first broke the English language into the publishing world, earning rave reviews on Amazon and GoodReads, wasn’t even born until 1340 and didn’t start writing until several years after that. 

So forget the Anglo-Saxons. I’m pretty sure they’re another red herring. Let’s take the rest of the claims apart.

 

First, who were the gentry?

To belong to the gentry, you had to own enough land to live off it without getting your hands dirty or doing any actual work. It was a loosely defined group, though. The nobles–the people who held titles–were easy to count, and people did count them, totting up fifty in the early 16th century, some 200 in the 18th. Once you had a number, you could be sure you’d gotten them all back on the bus after they’d gotten off to see the attractions or use the restroom.

The gentry, though? Sorry, but if you left a few dozen behind at Tower Bridge, no one would know.  

But let’s not compare the gentry to the nobility. That’s another red herring, and one I dragged in. I got tempted by those numbers. Sorry. Let’s compare the gentry to the peasantry instead. The most striking difference is that where the peasants were hard working and often hungry, the gentry ate well and prided themselves on their hospitality.

Hospitality to people like themselves, that is, or people further up in the hierarchy. It wouldn’t do to get too hospitable to the lower orders. They’d start to think they should eat like that every day.

No, I’m not cynical, just fed up with how little has changed. 

But we were talking about the English breakfast. In this telling, the gentry used breakfast to show off their wealth and hospitality. They made it an important social occasion. 

Take weddings. A wedding mass had to happen before noon (don’t ask me; maybe god had afternoons off), so weddings took place in the morning and then the bride and groom ate a wedding breakfast. With who knows how many well-wishers and hangers-on and family members.

Cue a grand spread for breakfast.

Skip ahead a few centuries and along comes a wealthy middle class. Not all of the middle class was wealthy, mind you, but part of it was, and because it drew its wealth from (gasp, horror) trade instead of land, it couldn’t be part of the gentry. But it could sure as hell eat, and it copied the gentry’s breakfasts, along with many of their other habits.

 

The tale of the English breakfast, version two

In Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain, Pen Vogler tells the tale differently, and I have a hunch more reliably. The earliest courtly records, she says, don’t say anything about breakfast except that people who rose early would have bread and ale. 

Who rose early? Well, it wasn’t the nobles and it probably wasn’t the gentry. Breakfast for them seems to have been a blank. In the medieval monasteries, an early meal was for people who did physical work. Monks and nuns were supposed to have their minds on higher things than stuffing their bellies, at least first thing in the morning.

By Tudor times, though, Katherine Parr’s maids were eating beef for breakfast, and by the 17th century breakfast had become pretty much universal, although the harder you worked (and the poorer you were) the earlier you ate. Samuel Pepys (we’re still in the 17th century) was eating meat left over from last night’s supper, either cold or reheated. (No, the microwave hadn’t been invented and they didn’t have electricity anyway so it wouldn’t have done him any good it if had been. He ate it fried.) For one breakfast, he ate radishes. Make whatever sense of that you can. 

By the time we come to Jane Austen (1775 to 1817), we find her mother writing about visiting cousins and having a breakfast of cakes, rolls, bread, toast, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, although Austen has one of her characters eating pork and mustard for breakfast and another, boiled eggs.

If I can translate all of this, it means that the English breakfast wasn’t what’s now known as an English breakfast. It was breakfast and it was in England, but that’s where the similarity ended. 

By Victorian times, the owners of a grand country house might show off with French food at dinner, but breakfast would be about showing off what the owner’s land produced, so we find ham, sausages, eggs, and bacon, as well as things I think of as un-breakfasty: beef, meat pies, pheasant, kidneys, smoked fish, and kedgeree, which is an Indian-inflected mix of fish and rice–a sign of that the British were messing around in India and had brought home the idea that if you added a bit of spice to your food your taste buds would wake up and do a little dance. 

 

The current components of an English breakfast

What’s now known as an English breakfast is heavy enough to stop a train, but a lot of the dishes I mentioned slid off the plate long ago and were replaced with others. It now involves some or all of the following: eggs, sausages, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and fried bread. Plus tea and antacid. 

Did I miss the marmalade and the fried potatoes? I did, along with the assorted regional variations.

So how deep into history do the components go? As far as I can tell, not very. The baked beans that are now an integral part of the English breakfast didn’t land on the plate, or in the country, until 1886, when Fortnum & Mason began selling them as an American luxury.

There’s no accounting for taste. 

As for the eggs, if you leave chickens to their own devices, they stop popping out eggs during the winter. Or so Lord Google tells me. I’ve never raised chickens, so I’ll have to take his word for it. It’s only when you keep the chickiebirds warm and add artificial light to their lives that they get in the mood to produce eggs all winter. So even among the rich, eggs wouldn’t have been available year round.

And even when they were in season, they were a luxury in a working person’s diet.

Eventually  the 20th century came, though, along with artificial lighting and ways to heat a hen house that didn’t risk setting it on fire, and eggs–or maybe that’s chickens–began to be farmed intensively. In the years before World War I a recognizable version of the modern English breakfast started to show up in hotels and in bed and breakfasts. 

Meanwhile, in the country houses of the rich, breakfast changed after World War I. They no longer had the massive number of servants it took to serve grand breakfasts anymore, and they began to simplify.

I know. It’s tough.

Bacon and eggs get a mention here, along with gastronomical boredom.

During World War II, with rationing in force, in many working-class homes the breakfast protein went to the men and boys and the toast went to the women and girls, with some of the trimmings added in on weekends and holidays. That was caused by a collision of sexism and the men and boys doing heavier work, either in reality or in theory. I know the men worked like dogs in many industries, but I’m not sure how heavily to bet on the women and girls carrying a light load.

But back to the components of the English breakfast: The tomatoes and mushrooms weren’t added until the 1960s and 1970s. Sadly, they’re harder to make fun of.

*

If you’re not tired of me by now, I have an article online about the difference between writing for a lesbian audience and writing for a crossover audience. It touches on the gay and lesbian liberation movement in the 1970s. Yes, I really am that old. In fact, I’m older. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the English breakfast.

You can find it at The Bookseller.

70 thoughts on “A quick history of the English breakfast

  1. Nice insight into the mists of tradition, although I expect that now the traditional English is probably a breakfast McMuffin and a cappuccino. The format is most likely down to those dreaded Marketing people. You may be aware of something called the traditional Ploughman’s Lunch, a 1970s campaign by the Milk Marketing Board to sell more cheese.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Interesting to read about the history of the English breakfast, especially how baked beans, tomatoes and mushrooms were added not too long ago. When I think about English breakfast, I think about a hearty meal in the morning of sausage, fried tomato, baked beans, scrambled eggs and a cup of English Breakfast tea. Sort of a heavy enough meal where you can skip lunch and go straight to tea.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. A full English is great if cooked properly and you are on holiday in a nice hotel with a good chef, then off stomping over hill and dale. Other than that, boiled eggs and toasted soldiers are another well known English breakfast that is not so heavy. IMHO of course.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Gosh, what an awful picture they chose to champion English Breakfasts! Also, the several mentions of Anglo-Saxons makes me cringe. Traditional hotels in some parts of the Netherlands and along the German Rhine also serve something akin to a British cooked Breakfast. But this is disapearing fast….sigh……

    Yes, all-day cooked breakfast are a still big draw — my eldery in-laws love them, and so do my sons in thier twenties!

    Liked by 2 people

    • In the US, the all-day breakfast is a big draw as well–but only in either your basic greasy spoon or your upscale greasy spoon. (No disparagement intended by calling places greasy spoons. I happen to love them.) The Anglo-Saxon thing–the mythologizing of them seems to run deep into English history, and I’m very much afraid that it’s been picked up by racists and outright neo-nazis, may the all-day English breakfast send their cholesterol levels through the roof.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not at all. It’s the Whig theory of history, which is that history develops onwards and upwards, rather than being a series of cock-ups. The Anglo-Saxons are important because we know that they had a sort of parliament, the Witan, so the theory is that history develops from that, on to Magna Carta, the Model Parliament, the Reformation, the Civil War, etc. Maybe Neanderthals had parliaments too, but we have no idea, so they don’t work as a starting point.

        Liked by 1 person

        • If you pick your historical moments carefully, you can find any sort of pattern you want. Okay, almost any pattern you want. You’ll probably need to exclude a few, of course, but if you move fast enough who’ll know? The conviction that Anglo-Saxon England was the seedbed of English freedom ignores Anglo-Saxon slavery and its trade in slaves. And so forth.

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  5. If I ate that much in the morning, I’d have to take a nap! Regardless, it was interesting learning the origins of the English breakfast and of the regional variations. I’ll stick with something much lighter, though, with a cup of strong coffee.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Your piece in The Bookseller on targeting lesbian or crossover readers was both inspirational and affirming for me. 100%.
    I would have loved to have known you in your Minnesota cab driving days. Oh, my. Now that’s story upon stories…
    Congratulations on your new book. I just posted your piece on Facebook. I have a few “literary” friends that I believe will also appreciate it. Well Done!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for posting it, Sheila. I appreciate it.

      My cab driving days. Hmm. I don’t write much about that anymore, although I did steal or story or two from myself in my first book. I was small and mouthy and involved in forming an independent union local that broke away from the Teamsters. Yeah, there are a few stories there now that you mention it.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Your post brought back memories of a trip to London fifteen years ago with three teens. They took a look at my spread (the only one who wanted to experience an English breakfast) and told jokes about the baked beans (what are they -the English-wanna be cowboys?). The mushrooms, tomatoes, and fat sausages all had their turn. Their favorite meals came from Tesco and the fish and chips places.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I can’t help it. I love English breakfast, I love baked beans and everything … and I love porridge (to the utter amusement of the one or other German colleague). I still remember the first time I tried it at an Irish hotel with my parents in the 90s. I love orange marmalade on toast finishing off the feast which I wouldn’t dream of having at home. It’s fascinating how breakfast has developed over time to become the typical English breakfast you get nowadays. What an entertaining post!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m glad you brought up the paper-wall: even in the (I’ll embrace your fantastic, fuzzy notation. Why pinpoint a century when you can point at two?) 1800s/18th centuries women were discouraged from reading. I once read that there were terrific reasons for it ranging from women’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction (!!!) to just giving women dangerous ideas. I didn’t get to the bottom of what dangerous referred to, maybe just getting ideas in general was dangerous? 😁

    Too bad sushi wasn’t embraced as part of a wholesome breakfast, like I understand it sometimes is in Japan (sadly not where we were, but we more than made up for it at dinner 😋).

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think women’s physiology also made reading dangerous–or at least it was dangerous if they indulged in too much of it. Delicate little things they were. They could carry and give birth to ten children, mind you, but mental exercise would overwhelm them.

      And men could explain that with straight faces.

      I’ve never eaten full-on sushi. I was a vegetarian by the time it wandered onto the American menu. But I have tried the fishless version and never managed to work up a liking for it. So come sit by me and I’ll slip mine onto your plate. No one will notice a thing.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Indeed! Thank you for clarifying the point and following the learned Aristotle’s impact on society (imagine where we would have been if Plato’s views stuck? But like a wise woman said, I digress!) … what would we have done if he had not explained to us his scientific (!) findings that women are incomplete/inferior to/deformed (take your pick!) men, with less teeth then men? We are fortunate to have such great empiricists drive society’s views on women, as Aristotle was married and had ample chance to simply… count. Blessed, indeed!

        May I ask if you are vegetarian or vegan? There are options nowadays if you care for more than avocado and cucumber in your sushi: https://gtfoitsvegan.com/product/no-tuna-sashimi-by-vegan-zeastar/

        And I’d notice and appreciate it 🙃

        Liked by 1 person

        • Counting teeth? That kind of hands-on stuff might’ve been beneath him. But–okay, I’m pulling that out of thin air. I don’t know how the upper-class ancient Greeks viewed that sort of thing, just guessing about the impact slavery would’ve had on the slaveholders. Either way, thanks for making me laugh first thing in the morning.

          I’m a vegetarian, but it’s not the contents of sushi that puts me off, it’s how fishy the seaweed wrapper itself tastes–at least to someone put off by a hint of the taste of fish. Take that away and we’re left with a rice-and-something dish, which I’d be happy enough with.

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  10. Ellen, you never disappoint with your multi-layered posts. One topic runs into another. So the English breakfast history was interesting, but I’d be flat out if I ate it. It’s porridge and tea for me. Noticed on Amazon that your new book is coming out in April. Other People Manage.Congrats! By the title, it promises to be a book to read, knowing your humor and creative writing style. Not sure if this is a duplicate comment. You’ll figure it our and post one. 📚Christine

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, this is the first version of the comment that I’ve found, so at the moment it’s not. I’ll dump the other one if and when I find it.

      Thanks for looking up the book. I’m excited about this one. I have been about the others as well, but with this one I seem to have turned up the volume. The publisher is committed to it in a way I’ve never experienced before. Fingers crossed.

      I’m with you on breakfasts: oatmeal with lots of fruit; tea; a months-old copy of the New Yorker. Bliss.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s the version I wanted you to get! Of course, when the new book comes out in April you’ll let us know. Turned up the volume sounds intriguing. You already come across loud & clear (in a good way). Best of luck & good thoughts! 📚🎶 Christine

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Well, now that all-day breakfast is a thing over here I am tempted to go out for a Breakfast Baconator at Wendy’s. (a variation of the Scotch Egg.) It’s closer to “sipper” time over here but I can eat breakfast any time of the day. It’s interesting to see the origins of such things !

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is. I find Vogler’s book a frustrating read because of the way she’s organized it, but she’s got a lot of good information in there.

      I must’ve been a bit short of 20 when I discovered that humans could eat eggs for something other than breakfast. I don’t know why my imagination hadn’t stretched that far. I’d discovered by then that cold vegetables and leftover pizza made good breakfasts.

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  12. Msss Cab Driver, you’re a survivor. :) I like it muchly how you let your opinion show throughout. This is important and all too rare. As for breakfasts, I’ve never had beans that early in my life, nor mushrooms, tomatoes, potatoes and the like. I still have fruit first thing, even before coffee. Mr. Montignac told me so, but then he died…

    Liked by 2 people

  13. A couple of eggs, toast, and a pot of tea – my idea of breakfast heaven.
    Great article. :D … When I first came across Daughters of a Coral Dawn, my very isolated country butch’s mind was blown! Lesbians writing science fiction! Who knew! :D
    Congrats on your immanent book release! :D

    Liked by 2 people

  14. English breakfasts has a Society? How interesting. My English Breakfast, and I have two, kippers, tea & dry toast, or tea and big old healthy fried eggs, fried potatoes, fried tomatoes, bacon, blood pudding, … . But when it comes to lite & wholesome I role to France for Coffee, pastries, cheese and sometimes a little meat.
    Yum, and Bon Appetite.

    Liked by 2 people

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  16. As an Asian, I have always been a fan of English Breakfast and I try to replicate it with whatever we have here in this side of the world, and it’s nice to know about its context and origins. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sherr. I’ve discovered how hard it is to replicate foods in other cultures, which give you different ingredients or similar ones formulated differently. I’m an American living in Britain, and the two cultures aren’t as different as the ones you’re working with, but even so there are some things I cook–and especially bake–that simply aren’t the same here.

      I wish you a good breakfast.

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  17. thank you i am now very pleased to be able to say ‘i am eating a jane austen breakfast’ to those who comment on my cake and hot chocolate, normally i just smile politely as they tell me how i should be eating ‘healthy stuff’ great post thank you for sharing , hope you have an excellent day

    Liked by 1 person

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